* Under pressure to move the needle
* Campaign seeks to reassure Republicans
* Playing Obama, Portman throws zingers
* Romney narrows gap in Reuters/Ipsos poll
By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON, Sept 28 Under pressure to regain his
balance in the race for the White House, Mitt Romney is going
through intense preparation for the first presidential debate
next week while his campaign appeals to fellow Republicans to
keep faith with their candidate.
Romney has appeared to have stopped the stumbling by having
a relatively mistake-free week of campaigning after recent
troubles that allowed President Barack Obama to build a lead in
polls with less than 40 days left until the Nov. 6 election.
But Romney has to find a way to move the needle back in his
direction before the race slips away. Romney forces are trying
to reassure party leaders that the campaign is not over.
Campaign manager Matt Rhoades was in Washington this week
and met privately with a high-profile group of party leaders to
calm any fears and lay out the campaign's plans, Republican
"He met with some veteran Republicans to explain the
campaign's plans for the next couple of weeks which did reassure
people," said a source familiar with the session.
The Republican's campaign has been struggling to come back
from a bad period marked by the disclosure of a secretly
videotaped fund-raising speech in which Romney said 47 percent
of Americans are dependent on government.
"Romney is lucky to be where he is given that we had two
terrible weeks on defense and not talking about jobs," said an
informal Romney adviser.
His problems have unleashed doubts among conservatives that
he had managed to hold in check for months. Many on the right
had wanted anybody but Romney to win the party's nomination, but
he outlasted a host of challengers.
Now, the critics are back.
Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in The
Washington Post on Friday that Romney needs to "go big,"
accusing him of playing it too safe.
He cited in particular a speech Romney gave in New York on
the inoffensive topic of reforming foreign aid, instead of
ripping into Obama for allowing the Arab Spring to create an
increase in anti-U.S. sentiment in the Middle East.
"It makes you think how far ahead Romney would be if he were
actually running a campaign," wrote Krauthammer. "His
unwillingness to go big, to go for the larger argument, is
Romney's wife Ann again called on Republican critics to hold
their tongue. "Everyone has an opinion," she told Fox News'
Greta Van Susteren.
"We're trying everything we can. We know it's difficult out
there on the campaign trail. And folks should know that Mitt is
putting every ounce of energy into it," she said.
PORTMAN BEATS UP ON ROMNEY
The former Massachusetts governor received some good news on
Friday when a Reuters/Ipsos daily online poll showed him
narrowing the gap with Obama to five percentage points. The
Democrat, who had led on Thursday by seven points, is now ahead
by 47-42 percent.
Much of the Romney campaign's plans to recover his footing
center around the first of three presidential debates that takes
place on Wednesday in Denver and is devoted to the tepid U.S.
economy, Romney's main campaign theme.
Ohio Republican U.S. Senator Rob Portman, playing Obama in
mock debate sessions, has adapted to the role of Romney's
adversary, unleashing difficult questions aimed at testing
Romney's ability to control his emotions.
"He keeps on beating me up," Romney told supporters this
week in Ohio. "And I just go away shaking my head."
The low-key Portman, who had been on Romney's vice
presidential short list when Romney chose Congressman Paul Ryan
instead, has been a tough customer in the mock debate.
The sessions have typically been moderated by longtime
Romney confidant Peter Flaherty. Portman's goal is to make sure
Romney is never surprised, so he has been tougher than perhaps
Obama himself may be.
"Portman does not show up unprepared. He has gone in there
really looking to throw it at him. At the same time, he wants to
be constructive," said a Republican close to the campaign.
Expecting Obama to get personal with attacks on Romney's
wealth, the mock sessions have covered how Romney should handle
The preparation has also included how to make sure Romney
does not come across as scolding and how he should avoid
complaining about the debate rules, something he did several
times during the 20 debates he held with Republican opponents in
the party's presidential primary battle.
Romney advisers are scrambling to lower expectations for
their candidate, saying this will be Obama's eighth one-on-one
debate going back to the 2008 campaign.
"President Obama is a very gifted speaker with substantial
debate experience," said Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom.
Romney raised money and slammed Obama's Middle East policy
on Friday in a rare campaign appearance in Pennsylvania, a
former swing state that he admitted was now difficult for him to
"We really would shock people if early in the evening of
November 6, it looked like Pennsylvania was going to come our
way," Romney told a meeting of donors.